Fatehpur Sikri and coming into Agra

21 May

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The former imperial capital of Fatehpur Sikri, which served as stop on our way from Jaipur to Agra, is one of India’s architectural masterpieces. A visit to this abandoned city takes place in two goes. Though the Royal Palace and the Dargah Mosque form part of the same complex, the atmosphere in the two sites appeared entirely different. While the palace was a quiet stroll through history, the visit to the mosque grounds was sadly an unpleasant walk through pushy crowds, touts and litter.

The Mughal emperor Akbar only lived in Fatehpur Sikri for 16 years before deserting the city in 1585. The reason it became a ghost city is disputed. Local guides still hold that water shortage caused the desertion, while my Rough Guide explains the move of the population to Lahore with military strategy. Today, the site attracts thousands of pilgrims and tourists daily during the high season and often plays the backdrop to Bollywood films.

Abran, a slight man in his forties with paan-stained teeth, took us around the deserted town. He turned out to be the most knowledgable guide we have ever had. Unfortunately my notebook remained fairly blank during our visit. During the time it had taken us from Jaipur to Fatehpur Sikri, the temperature had reached 44 degrees. With a bit of light wind, the walk around the palace site was like walking against a hot blow dryer. My lips tasted salty. The free drinking water available in taps around the complex had started to seem extremely tempting. As my boyfriend sighed heavily, Abran winked at us: “This is the hot season. No one comes now”.

But, the gist of the uniqueness of the palaces and temples inside Fatehpur Sikri is religious intermingling. Emperor Akbar followed the Baha'i faith, Abran told us, the same faith as the massive marble temple resembling a giant lotus in Delhi. Though wikipedia will tell you more, what I can recount is that Baha'i appears to be a hotchpotch of religions and political correctness. The fusion is also apparent in the buildings, many which have pillars adorned with symbols of all the major world religions. Even the individual sites of worships of Akbar’s three wives – a Muslim, a Christian and a Hindu – come with small nods to other religions. Although I don’t remember exactly what was mixed how, for the sake of illustration let’s say the mosque included crosses, the Hindu temple came with domes normally found in churches, and David stars and Jain flower pattern adorned the Catholic church.

(And yes, three wives appear shockingly modest, but Akbar also had a legendary harem of 5000 concubines guarded by eunuchs. Apparently, he collected women as stamps and used them as ludo pieces. In the courtyard Pachisi Court, a massive playing board was drawn up. Akbar would, legend goes, dress up female slaves in colourful dresses and use them to play ludo. )

The mosque on the other hand, was unfortunately a rather unpleasant visit. The guidebook had already warned us that aggressive touts and self-appointed guides would make it impossible to enjoy the place in peace. But, the litter, shouting and pushing took me by surprise. What first appeared to be kites in the air turned out to be whirling plastic bags.

At the prayer grounds, where the fans faced east and the men praying faced west, I picked up a young male follower, who walked leeringly in my heels for the next ten minutes. I found myself repeatedly asking my boyfriend to walk behind me, expecting any of the men behind to suddenly reach out and touch me. Making our way towards the tomb of the Sufi saint who made the prophecy that Akbar would have a son, we half-tripped over beggars sprawled out next to gift shops selling trinkets and various offerings. The only cheery part of the visit to the tomb was when I left the building. On the way out, a man patted me quickly on the head with a peacock brush before he cheekily suggested, “Donation? Good luck for you!”

The day did not really improve after that. As we drove into Agra, I was reminded of the aura of angst around my head on many occasions the past two weeks. In the first roundabout greeting us, two mopeds lay in a heap with their previous drivers at the bottom. Further into the city, brick houses were surrounded by garbage heaps and stray dogs. The city confirmed to the image of India in so many ways: all dirty, crowded and dusty.

It did not help Agra with her first impression that Balu´s air condition had broken down at this point. Now inside a honking mobile sauna, I thought with relief that this was the last day we were taken this car down dusty Rajasthani roads. A driver comes with many benefits, but the thought of the coming train rides to Khajuraho, Varanasi and then Delhi lifted my spirits as I stumbled nauseous out of the car.

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